Smriti Mundhra, Los Angeles-based Indian-American filmmaker
Smriti Mundhra feels Yash Raj Films showed a great leap of faith in her when she pitched the idea of a documentary-series on the production house and its founder, the late filmmaker Yash Chopra, to the studio. The Los Angeles-based Indian-American filmmaker was just one documentary old when she approached them.
The Romantics, which features rare archival footage and interviews by more than 30 eminent film personalities, including Amitabh Bachchan, Shah Rukh Khan, Aamir Khan, Salman Khan, Rani Mukerji, Madhuri Dixit, Kajol and Ranveer Singh, among others, premiered on Netflix on February 14. It also has a rare appearance by Chopra’s eldest son, producer-filmmaker Aditya Chopra, who speaks at length about Yash Raj Films’ legacy, and his vision for the studio. The production house turned 50 in 2020 and is currently basking in the commercial success of Pathaan.
In an interview with Forbes India
, Mundhra, who previously won an Oscar nomination for her documentary St. Louis Superman and is the creator of the much-talked-about reality television series Indian Matchmaking, speaks about her experience of immersing herself for three years in bringing to life the story of one of India’s most celebrated film banners, its contribution to Indian cinema and why it’s hard to be cynical about movies.
Q. How did the idea of making The Romantics come about?
For a long time, I wanted to do something on Hindi cinema—in the documentary format. As I became a filmmaker and even when I went to a film school, I noticed that we studied the greats from all different parts of the world. But not often the auteurs from India, besides maybe, occasionally, Satyajit Ray. We don’t often study filmmakers in Bollywood though it is one of the biggest film industries in the world. That always bothered me somewhere. I know we have incredible filmmakers in this country whose legacy endures today and has impacted cinema worldwide. And Yash Chopra seemed like a great lens to examine this through. So much of what we know of Hindi films… even if you have a passing familiarity with the idea of Bollywood, the image that comes to mind has been crafted by Yash Chopra. Q. What was the thought behind making the documentary?
There were two ideas. One was to make something that would be a beautiful piece of nostalgia for people and remind them why they love movies and going to the movies. And also to show the world that Bollywood or popular Hindi cinema is not just about singing and dancing… there is craft that is involved. There are filmmakers who have cultivated that idea. It’s reflective of our culture as well. I wanted to do a little bit of that type of examination and make sure that we regard popular Hindi cinema in the global cannon of world cinema. Q. How long did it take for you to make The Romantics?
Three years. Q. Was it easy to get the big names who feature in it to open up?
It was… I wish I could take credit for that, but it was because people have such respect for Yash Chopra. They were talking about one of the most beloved filmmakers of the country. So, it was more of a fun, conversational, anecdotal reminiscing sort of a vibe.
Q. Who was the most impressive among them all?
Oh, that’s tough. There are a few that come to mind immediately. Rishi Kapoor, of course… it was his last interview before he passed away. Beyond that, he was so charismatic. I feel he was at the peak of his charisma that day. He was engaged, had great insights and he was so funny. Shah Rukh Khan spoke openly about his formative experiences not only as an actor and eventually as a superstar, but also just as a fan of the movies. He spoke with amazing candour. Amitabh Bachchan gave great context… he has seen so much evolution in India. Ranveer Singh was energetic and entertaining from start to finish. He has this ability to speak earnestly—it was not rehearsed. And, of course, Aditya Chopra… once you got him in that seat and he was talking, it was phenomenal. The level of insights, the clarity with which he expresses his ideas and thoughts… he had so much to say, and there were no limitations or parameters on what I could ask or talk about. Q. What was the duration of the total footage that you had?
It was probably well over 100 hours. The Romanticscis a documentary-series on Yash Raj Films and its founder, the late filmmaker Yash Chopra
Q. What was the most difficult part for you to leave out?
So much… when you have to distil that much material and cover that much time span for four one-hour episodes, there obviously is a lot left out. I would have loved if Sridevi was with us and I could have talked to her about her point of view. I would have loved had I talked to Lata Mangeshkar… she was unfortunately too ill at that time to do an interview. That would have been incredible. We talked to choreographer Vaibhavi Merchant and some others about the evolution of choreography in Yash Raj Films and what that said about the feminine ideal. We could not delve too deep into that though they gave great insights. Q. Was this always meant to be a four-part series?
It was my decision early on. Especially with documentaries, you never want to wear out an audience. I’d rather have people wanting more. If you extend it too long, then it starts to feel exhaustive. I thought four parts is what the appetite is. It’s bingeable, so the challenge was to cram all that I wanted in those four hours. Q. Was it easy to get the reticent and media-averse Aditya Chopra, chairman of Yash Raj Films, to speak on camera because you had pitched the idea via his studio?
No. Though I had the blessing of the studio, and they were helpful, convincing him was a challenge. But ultimately when he saw what I was trying to do… and when it became clear that this was going to be sort of the definitive tribute to his father, he agreed. Also read: Indian film industry seeks new horizons in Cannes Q. What was his first reaction?
Practically hang up the phone (laughs)… no, I am kidding. He was very polite about it. He said I understand completely… but respectfully the answer is no. That was his answer for long periods consistently. When I was doing the rest of the interviews, I told him why not just film the interview. It’s under your control… you can put it in your archives and keep it for your personal record. Q. What was your experience of interviewing him?
It was shockingly easy to interview him. Of course, we prepared a lot to make the most of the time we had. He was very comfortable talking, very open to talking about anything, there were no restrictions. Sometimes I almost felt that he was more uncomfortable talking about his successes than he was about his failures. He offered insights into his thinking about how he built the studio. Q. He features predominantly in the second and third episodes. Did you want to make the most of getting an interview with him?
Definitely. Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge
[his directorial debut] was a transition point [for Yash Raj Films], but after Mohabbatein
, the torch was passed. Yash Chopra was ready to take a step back from the business aspect of things… it was Aditya Chopra who was driving the second half of the journey, so it made sense to have him there. Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge was a transition point for Yash Raj Films, but after Mohabbatein, the torch was passed from Yash Chopra to Aditya Chopra Q. Now that you have made the documentary, what is the difference that you see between father and son?
They arrive from the same place… in the sense that they are obsessed about filmmaking. They have great respect for the audience, and neither lost sight of that. But their approach is different. Yash Chopra was intuitive, hands-on, gregarious, and liked people. That was the part of the charm for him about filmmaking. Aditya is a thinker. He thinks through every decision… and when he has made a film, he needs some time to step back. Yash Chopra would make a film every year. Aditya is as passionate about producing, which I don’t think Yash Chopra was… he was not passionate about the business side of things. For Aditya, that aspect is as creative as making movies.
Q. What is your takeaway after making the series?
I think somewhere deep down we don’t want to be cynical about movies. Maybe in recent years we’ve lost sight of that. Hopefully, with this series there’s a bit of a reminder that it’s an art form that’s meant to inspire, please and engage, and give us a collective experience. That’s always the aim of any actor or filmmaker… I am not saying it always succeeds. When you see that, it’s hard to be cynical about the industry.
Also read: If you fail in OTT as an actor, then it's difficult for you to survive: R Madhavan Q. How would you sum up your experience of directing The Romantics?
It was absolutely magical. The fact that the audiences have taken to it so profoundly is amazing. Q. Are you more comfortable with making documentaries?
I gravitated towards that style of filmmaking and storytelling partially because I am curious about life. It gives me a chance to explore different topics that interest me. I have been dabbling in fiction more and will continue doing that. Q. What next for you?
We’ll be premiering the third season of Indian Matchmaking in the coming months. I have been waiting to see how people react to this series. I would love to do more explorations of the Indian film industry or the artistes from Indian cinema. I don’t know what that is exactly… I will let the universe surprise me.
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